Among the biggest space news of 2022 was Russia's reluctance to shoot down US reconnaissance and communications satellites amid its proxy war with NATO in Ukraine, although the likelihood of such a development had been discussed during the war's earliest phase.
At some point, especially following the appointment of Sergey Surovikin, Commander of Russia's Aerospace Forces, as top commander of all Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, one could perhaps conclude that the confrontation was about to escalate further and spill over into space. However, the warring sides ultimately managed to stop this worst-case scenario from materializing.
The near-Earth orbit remains a space that is still free from confrontation, and this lays a solid foundation for mankind's continued efforts to push forward into space in 2023.
2023 is slated to become a very important year in space exploration. The year's plans include a host of developments that herald the beginning of a fundamentally new phase in space exploration that is going to be characterized by a growing number of players, mostly private, and, by extension, a greater stability of its progress. Space is getting increasingly more attractive to commercial players.
There are two general areas where most breakthroughs can be expected to be made: satellite Internet access and lunar exploration.
2+2: A New World of Space-based Internet
The deployment of OneWeb, a private UK-based satellite Internet access system, is expected to be completed as early as the first quarter of 2023. As a result, its number of satellites in the low-Earth orbit will reach 650 (against just 500 at the start of 2022), and the system will reach its designed initial parameters needed for transitioning into a sustainable mode of operation. This will make OneWeb a second global high-speed broadband satellite Internet access system after the American Starlink.
By December 2022, Starlink's low-Earth-orbit satellite constellation included 3,300 satellites, with the number of its users reaching 1 million worldwide. With the development of the second-generation network over the coming years, the number of satellites is expected to grow to 12,000, with a further increase to up to 42,000 units.
In addition, 2023 is expected to see the start of satellite constellations' deployment by two other private global Internet networks, a U.S.-based Kuiper (owned by Amazon) and China's GalaxySpace. The Kuiper constellation is projected to have more than 3,000 satellites, while GalaxySpace has promised to be launching up to 500 satellites a year. As a result, one can reasonably expect to see as many as four global networks in full operation by the end of this decade.
Back in the early 2000s, this would have sounded a lot like science fiction. Commercial failures of such satellite communications systems as Iridium and Globalstar did not help much to instil a great deal of optimism.
It would be fitting to mention Teledesic, yet another satellite project with plans for as many as 288 satellites that has been around since the 1990s. However, this project that, for many years, had been driven by none other than Bill Gates himself, had never been able to get off the ground and go past the phase of searching for funding and the endless process of building and rebuilding all sorts of partnerships with various aerospace corporations and electronics manufacturers.
But the advent of smartphones and mobile Internet changed the situation in a most dramatic way. This created a huge market that attracted a lot of ambitious private players. Elon Musk and his SpaceX unveiled their Starlink satellite project in January 2015, and by as early as 2021, the Starlink network counted more than 100,000 users.
Keeping in mind that the Kuiper project was launched as recently as 2019 and that it has the backing of such an Internet industry behemoth as Amazon and its billionaire owner Jeff Bezos, it would be reasonable to expect that this satellite network will be experiencing an explosive growth along with a comparable expansion of the Internet-of-Things (IOT) market's capacity.
Another thing that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have in common is that the former also happens to have his own private space company, Blue Origin. Established in 2000, the company has already completed six manned suborbital flights aboard the New Shepard spacecraft, and it is planning to make the first launch of its New Glenn heavy rocket in the fourth quarter of 2023.
In 2019, Blue Origin presented its prototype landing module for landing on the surface of the Moon.
On your marks: Moon Race 2.0
The end of 2022 witnessed the successful completion of the Artemis 1 space mission. As part of its unmanned test flight, the US Orion craft approached the Moon and then circled around the Earth's natural satellite twice at a low altitude of about 130 kilometres within a two-week space before returning back to Earth and successfully splashing down in the Pacific.
According to NASA's plans, Artemis 2 is scheduled for 2024. The mission would involve a manned flight around the Moon with a four-man crew on board. This will be followed by Artemis 3 mission in 2025, with US astronauts expected to land on the surface of the Moon, 53 years after the nation's previous similar mission.
The Americans are clearly attempting to claim a lead in this new Moon Race, trying to edge ahead of the Russo-Chinese space alliance. According to China's lunar exploration program, the landing of its taikonauts on the Moon was not originally expected to occur before 2030, but reports surfaced in late 2021 that this could happen even prior to 2030.
The fourth phase of China's lunar exploration program was approved in September 2022, with plans to deploy core structures of the International Lunar Research Station near the Moon's South Pole over the next ten years. The first mission under Phase Four, known as Chang'e 6, was supposed to take place in 2023, but the launch date has since been pushed back to 2024 and, according to CNSA, China's space agency, it could be put off even further, until 2025.
Overall, the Americans seem to have managed reviving the dynamism of their space industry. Notably, their plans include a virgin manned mission of the Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station scheduled for 2023. Starliner will thus become the second manned spacecraft, after Crew Dragon, to reach the low-Earth orbit with its success marking an end to a brief period of the US space program's complete dependence on Russia's Soyuz craft.
With the launch of the Vulcan Centaur heavy rocket (developed by ULA, an alliance of Lockheed Martin and Boeing) scheduled for the first quarter of 2023, the era of US dependence on Russia's RD-180 rocket engines, could also come to an end.
Conversely, the anti-Russian sanctions that have been put in place could greatly inhibit the success of Russian projects since most of them are being implemented in close cooperation with international partners. For example, the Luna 28 mission, that was supposed to be incorporated into the startup phase of the International Lunar Research Station project, may be pushed back due to the termination of Russia's cooperation with European countries in the field of robotics.